As currently specified, the new National Infrastructure Commission will focus on redressing yesterday’s neglect rather than preparing for tomorrow’s challenges.
Today the BBC and other general media carried the story that the Chancellor George Osborne will launch the National Infrastructure Commission to oversee £100bn of spending on ‘vital’ infrastructure projects; focusing on connections between cities in the North, London’s transport system, and energy.
I believe the Commission’s remit is defined too narrowly. When the Commission was first discussed the government declared that the UK had for centuries been “pioneers in infrastructure”. In recent decades, it said, “we have let this proud record slip”. There is a danger that slippage will continue because the Commission is aiming redress a shortcomings that may be already developing in new directions.
It is true that the UK had been pioneers in physical infrastructure. It is also true that the UK has also been a pioneer in certain forms of social infrastructure. Redressing decades of neglect of physical infrastructure only leaves the UK with the prospect that decades from now a new Commission will be required to make up for another important area where the pioneer has fallen behind due to neglect.
Infrastructure can be defined broadly as any set of institutions that supports day-to-day interactions among people. Physical infrastructure is well understood. The contributions of transport, power and communications systems are widely recognised.
Social infrastructure is determined by the underlying, deeply ingrained systems and cultures that allow people to interact with each other in what are regarded as largely successful (that is, in mutually satisfactory) ways. Arguably, UK social infrastructure is in better shape than physical infrastructure due largely to the strength of professionalism in this country.
The justice system is an example of social infrastructure. By providing punishments and possible incarceration of people who carry out criminal/antisocial acts, and providing redress for assumed wrongs in ordinary exchanges between people, the justice system acts as infrastructure by allowing citizens to feel safe to go about their business relations. Significantly justice is expected to be ‘blind’. The law is meant to apply to all equally. There are, however, instances where this does not occur. The justice system operates better or worse in different societies and at different times in particular societies. Nevertheless it is generally thought of as providing a base or floor to human interactions among people who may not have other connections.
Trustworthy professionalism is another form of social infrastructure. The system of support for professionalism is particularly strong in the UK. Professional bodies act to support the technical and ethical competence of millions of individual professionals, thereby giving those they service confidence that they will receive a service that meets established standards. This is achieved through standards for qualifications, ethical codes and mechanisms to support those codes including complaints and disciplinary procedures and, more recently, programmes for continuing professional development. Like the justice system, the system of professional bodies operates better in some societies and at certain times better than others.
Also like the justice system, professionalism normally acts ‘blind’. It overlaps to some extent with the justice system. While some professional services will cost more than others reflecting a higher quality, there is a floor below which the standard of professional service will not fall as a rule. These standards apply to all who engage with professionals regardless of their personal characteristics or other connections.
The Commission has been charged with giving the government ‘a long-term, unbiased analysis of the country’s major infrastructure needs.’ Social infrastructure should be considered as part of that analysis of major needs.
There are many things the Commission could do to bolster social infrastructure in the UK including:
- Investigating the impact of particular professions and professional bodies on the quality of services provided;
- Bolstering traditional forms of social infrastructure such as encouraging support for UK professional bodies to undertake benchmarking studies of best practice;
- Supporting research into how new forms of social infrastructure, such as social media, operate and can be harnessed for clearer social benefit;
- Encourage a general national conversation about social infrastructure and its importance to social and economic wellbeing.
We do not want a future chancellor to have to say, ‘I’m determined to shake Britain out of its inertia on social infrastructure and end the situation where we trail our rivals.’ We do not want this to happen because the opportunity and money to be spent on infrastructure from 2015 was limited in scope and did not take into account a more modern view of infrastructure.
For further information on social infrastructure, read our white paper, The professional body sector contribution to social infrastructure.
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